Most Hopi grow corn with only the precipitation that falls on their fields, but two decades of drought have some of them testing the waters of irrigation and hoping they can preserve other customs with their harvests.
September 18, 2009
Recently, the Economist reported on the value, in term of a person’s lifetime wages, of a college degree. The core of the argument was that, over the course of an individual’s life, the expense of a degree will be more than recouped in higher future earnings. We Americans spend astronomical sums on higher education, partly based on the belief that it will come back to us, as the Economist says, in the form of higher-paying and more interesting jobs, and partly because many of us view college as a rite of passage and a font of invaluable social capital.
I will not dispute that my own degree provides me with resources, personal connections, and many cherished memories. What surprises me, however, is that some would consider my farming apprenticeships, which I view as an equally valuable and in some ways more practical educational experience, as mild exploitation. The upside of this popular misconception is that my friends often pick up the tab as, after all, I earn $600 a month, April to October. At the risk of losing my free drinks, however, I’d like to set the record straight.
Farming apprenticeships come in all manner of shapes and sizes—I know young farmers earning more than $1000 a month, not including the free room and board, and I know others who bring in $100 a month and share a bunk room in a trailer. What the good apprenticeships share is a sincere commitment on the part of the farmer to train the next generation of sustainable agrarians. These farmers believe in apprenticeships because they are themselves the products of a good one, or because they wish they had had such an experience, rather than the rough road of trial and error.
As an example, Don, the farmer at Caretaker Farm, where I work, apprenticed at Brookfield Farm under Dan Kaplan. Dan, in turn, apprenticed at Caretaker under the former owners, Sam and Elizabeth Smith. As an apprentice here, I am the beneficiary of the wisdom from three generations of excellent farmers.
These farmers are as much teachers as any professor—I receive feedback on my performance, assignments intended to improve my understanding or skills, and a patient ear for all of my questions. Truly, I ask a lot of questions. As the season winds to a close, we are taking time in our workday for weekly workshops on crop planning, cover cropping, CSA business management, and other topics. And all season long I’ve been provided with a home (the most lovely cabin since Thoreau’s Walden), all of my meals (groceries to supplement farm vegetables are provided, and we cook communally), and a setting that takes my breath away.
On top of all of that, I get paid. When I interned for a non-profit, which provided me with no housing, and no more food than free bagels on Fridays, I earned nothing. Farming seemed like quite the step up to me.
Too often, I think, non-farmers (or parents!) hear an apprentice salary and immediately calculate it into an hourly wage. Their conclusion, then, is that the employer farmers is getting one heck of a deal. When you consider, however, the labor invested each year in training an employee who will leave at then end of the season, the commitment to providing meaningful work, and the promise of an environment open to questions, I begin to wonder, “what kind of altruists are these people?”
This week CRAFT (yet another perk of my apprenticeship) visited Brookfield Farm, where manager Dan Kaplan explained his farm’s business plan and budget. Labor costs, his own and the apprentices’, make up a full 60% of his budget. “Apprentices are not cheap,” he noted with a laugh, “not if you treat them well.”
To be sure, exploitative apprenticeships exist. I have a friend who, finally tired of a lazy manager who taught him nothing and paid him little more, packed his car and left his apprenticeship mid-season. He was jaded and bitter and convinced that the idea of apprenticeship was all a sham.
But his experience is not the norm, I believe. Seek out an apprenticeship with the same critical eye with which others go college shopping. You’ll end up with a lot less debt, and with luck, a farm of your own some day.
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